Eritrean overcomes challenges to wear the Tour’s polka-dot jersey.
Daniel Teklehaimanot ensured that he would ride in the Tour de France’s polka-dot jersey at least until the rest day after spending two days in the break and mopping up four mountain points along the way. The MTN-Qhubeka rider made history just by arriving at the Tour and continues to do so with this jersey, but who is Daniel Teklehaimanot?
A quiet and friendly, but determined character, Teklehaimanot may be a new name to a lot of cycling fans. Some may know him from his exploits at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June or some may be familiar with him from his stint at the WorldTour level back in 2012 and 2013. However, in his native Eritrea, Teklehaimanot is a national hero – a whopping 3,000 people turned up for his wedding late last year. The passion for cycling is one of the reminders of the 60-odd years that Italy ruled the country.
Born on 10 November 1988 in Derbawa, a small market town 25 kilometres from the capital Asamara, to a large family of six sisters and five brothers, Teklehaimanot has paved the way for riders from this African nation. A country that has been ravaged by successive colonies and a bloody 30-year war to finally gain independence in 1993, just leaving is a major challenge. Constitutionally, Eritrea is a democracy but in practice it is a dictatorship where an exit visa is required for nationals to leave the country. To leave, many have to promise two per cent of their earnings to the Eritrean government and make sure to praise and publicise the country at any chance they get.
He and his fellow Eritrean teammates Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane have all been given special permission from the president Isaias Afwerki to leave, a path made easier by their hero status at home. That wasn’t the case however when Teklehaimanot first set out to become a professional cyclist.
“He was the pioneer of African cycling back in 2008 when he went to the World Cycling Centre on his own before anybody from Africa made that leap of faith. I think it shows how badly he wanted to be a successful cyclist,” says MTN-Qhubeka Team Principal Doug Ryder. “He is so good and he went on his own, this wasn’t gifted to him. He had the right vision I think and he wanted to be there.”
A rocky road
Teklehaimanot began racing in 2005 at the age of 16 and claimed his first major victory at the 2007 Giro di Eritrea. In 2008 he won the Eritrean national road race championships and went on to take top 10 at the continental championships in both the road race and the time trial. It was there that Michel Théze of the World Cycling Centre (WCC), an elite training centre opened by the UCI in 2002, saw Teklehaimanot’s promise.
Later that year, Teklehaimanot travelled to the centre in Aigle, Switzerland, which is designed to give riders from countries that have little or no cycling structure a chance at making it as a professional. He was given a shot as a stagiaire with the Italian Amore & Vita-McDonald’s team but it didn’t work out. While still unable to find a professional contract, Teklehaimanot racked up the titles, becoming a continental champion in the road race, time trial and team time trial in 2010.
Teklehaimanot would spend almost two years at the WCC before he got another chance with the Cervélo Test Team at the end of 2010. It looked promising, but he was put firmly back in square one when the team subsequently folded. He spent yet another year at the WCC, racking up two more continental titles, the national time trial title and a stage win at the Tour of Gabon, beating the up and coming South African Reinardt Janse van Rensburg.
Orica-GreenEdge’s general manager Shane Bannan saw promise in the now 23-year-old Eritrean and signed him up on a two-year contract. It was the big chance that Teklehaimanot had been looking for and he went on to notch up a further two national titles before making an historic debut at the Vuelta a España later that year. Though he was finally making waves on the European circuit, his time with Orica was fraught with difficulties and visa problems that meant he took part in just one European race in the entire 2013 season. The team didn’t renew his contract and he switched to the South African-based MTN-Qhubeka team, which nurtures talent from around the continent of Africa.
“Shane tried to do the best but he didn’t understand the challenges that we face to take the African riders from the continent into Europe,” says Ryder. “He did two years there which was amazing for him and then he came to us. We’ve given him a huge racing programme, he’s had massive opportunities and if you look at the last two months he’s on another level.”
Becoming an ambassador for African cycling
Teklehaimanot had a challenging start to his time at MTN-Qhubeka after a crash at the Tour de Suisse and his father falling ill. The team sent him home to spend time with his family and he returned to help them as they made their debut at the Vuelta a España late last year. Now into his second season with the team, Teklehaimanot has gone from strength to strength.
He spent several days in the break at the Critérium du Dauphiné to take the mountains classification jersey, MTN’s first at WorldTour level. When the team put down their plans to take the polka-dot jersey at the Tour, it was Teklehaimanot that put his hand up. “It’s a jersey that he absolutely loves. It’s a jersey that shows aggression, it shows passion, it shows commitment and it shows dedication and hard work. For him to wear it, it’s his dream come true,” Ryder told Cyclingnews on Thursday after he took the jersey.
Teklehaimanot went on the attack again on Friday to take the lone point available, to give the team and himself as long as possible in the jersey. The team don’t expect to have the jersey in Paris with the GC contenders likely to hoover up the majority of the points. “That’s the theory but what happens in practice we don’t know,” said Ryder. “Does he think like that? Of course not. He’s going to go out every day to do what he can.”
And what about the future Teklehaimanot? “We don’t know,” says Ryder. “I’ve had many discussions with Daniel and Merhawi asking them if they here for the short term or do they want to sustain it and become a big legend of African cycling because they pioneered it. It sounds like they want to be here for the long-haul and I’m excited about that.”